From 9/11 to the Arab Revolutions

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    Fikrun wa Fann was a cultural magazine published by the Goethe Institute from 1963 to 2016 that supported and shaped the cultural exchange between Germany and Islamic countries. Together with the publishing of the last issue, “Flight and Displacement” (issue 105), in autumn of 2016 the maintenance and updating of this online portal was ceased.

    Fundamentalists in Hibernation

    How did the religious fundamentalism that eventually led to the attacks of September 11th 2001 come about? The Lebanese author Alawiyya Sobh explains why Salafi fundamentalists cannot claim to speak in the name of Islam.

    The September 11th terrorist attack began the twenty-first century with new forms of barbarism and racist practice produced by malice and fanaticism. This vile, criminal incident revealed to the West the beliefs of extreme fundamentalists, their methods of killing, bloody practices, and point of view. It also carried harbingers and hints of our entry into an age of tyrannies, massacres, and annihilating explosions that are aimed at anyone in our countries who is different. We had imagined that violence like this had receded into the past along with the rest of the twentieth century’s thoughts, beliefs, and revolutions. Various forms of liberal, democratic government would be adopted, and all men would be considered brothers. In the past century, as a result of an opening up to the West, currents of cultural enlightenment and aspirations for modernity in all political, cultural, and social fields were prevalent in our countries. Disappointments, defeats, and the failure of the project to modernise our Arab and Islamic world, however, together with its failure and shortcomings at different levels, gave birth to these types of movements that generally proliferate in times of decline when ignorance and superstition take over in the absence of intellect, science, and culture. Then the sole authority becomes religion. If only religion really was the authority instead of fanaticism and Salafi and Takfiri currents that embrace kneejerk violence and bloodshed – in other words, the slaughter of innocents – so long as it is the Other’s blood that is shed, the blood of anyone different! It is worth noting too that these fanatical, Salafi tendencies have emerged from the womb of authoritarian regimes that oppress their peoples. They also developed from the weakness of the enlightenment project and from its failure to turn dream into reality. I believe as well that the emergence of these types of fundamentalism is a result of a crisis of philosophy, which has disappeared from our countries. (Philosophy is taboo and therefore is not studied in universities and schools of numerous Arab and Islamic countries.) Many cultured people have also substituted religion for philosophy as their authority. So thought, beliefs, and language have changed. Fundamentalist trends of thought have, for example, substituted ‘religious struggle’ for ‘class struggle.’ The poor are no longer thought to be oppressed, because from a religious point of view the oppressor is the Other.  Similarly, countries once termed ‘imperialist’ are now ‘the world of arrogance’. The cultural concepts of those fundamentalists who previously were secularists have changed as well. Learning and questioning no longer have pride of place; it is all about answers inspired by religion. For extremists, moreover, religion is problematic and does not create a believer who welcomes anyone who is different. Instead, it creates a racist murderer.

    Takfiri fundamentalism

    The events of September 11th show that Takfiri forms of fundamentalism do not consider all men to be brothers; the West is seen as the Other - as Christian, infidel, and arrogant. Thus no Westerner is guiltless, and shedding blood to benefit the fundamentalist community, which is assumed to be weak, is permissible. The fundamentalist’s point of reference in his treatment of the Other is not religion but a reliance on denominations, sects, creeds, and extremist groups that have survived through the ages. They depend on all of these to differentiate Self from Other and identity from dissolution. Thus the identity of this Self becomes racist, sectarian, and terrorist with regard to the Other. Many Islamic communities and even some Arab regimes take the letter of Umar ibn al-Khattab as their reference for the treatment of Christians, whom they consider Ahl al-Dhimma, ‘Protected People,’ rather than fellow countrymen. Let us cite here some of the clauses of this letter that Christians of Syria sent to the Caliph Umar and which inspired Umar’s pact with them.

    We guarantee that we will not build a monastery, church, monk’s cell, or hermitage in our city or near it.
    We will not repair any that have been destroyed and will not use any that are in the Muslims’ quarters. We will not teach our children the Koran.
    We will show respect to Muslims and rise from our seats if they desire to sit. We will not wear a hat, turban, or sandals like theirs, part our hair like them, speak their language, use names like theirs, or ride with their saddles.
    We will not gird ourselves with swords, adopt any weapon or carry one with us, and we will not engrave Arabic inscriptions on our signet rings.
    We will clip the hair of our foreheads, wear distinctive clothing wherever we are, and fasten the zunnar sash around our waist.
    We will not display our crosses or our books on roads that Muslims frequent or in their markets. We will not display crosses on our churches or ring bells in our churches in the presence of Muslims.
    We will not stage outdoor processions for Palm Sunday or Easter, raise our voices when lamenting the dead, display fires for them anywhere that Muslims pass, or place our dead near them.
    We guarantee that we and the people of our religious community will observe these things, receiving in return a guarantee of security for ourselves and our possessions. If we violate any of these stipulations that we have imposed on ourselves, then this pact is void and you are entitled to treat us as seditious and troublesome people.

    I believe that the problem is more cultural than political. The problem is embedded in the culture that such groups generate while secular intellectuals are preoccupied by their crises, marginalisation and cliques.
    The West, during the enlightening, modernising trend that dominated the twentieth century, was the Other who engaged in dialogue and influenced intellectual culture, literature, the arts, and creativity in general; but for extreme Islamists the West is the arrogant infidel that must be blown up and slain.

    Hating difference

    They hate and despise anyone who is different – whether the West or any group that has another system of belief. They hate everything that is different politically, culturally, or ideologically. They hate life and women and everything beautiful on earth. They declare everything to be infidel: the West, secularists, artists, the intellect, and every human thought. Their main idea is to kill anyone who differs, no matter how. Our battle here or in the West is against all overly zealous fundamentalists regardless of their religion, because a truly religious believer is neither fanatical nor racist. For these fundamentalist zealots every liberal secular thinker, intellectual, artist, educated person, painter, musician and athlete is an infidel and indecent. They regard as a spy any person who demands civilisation, freedom of belief, justice, laws, religion, self, and body. Everyone who dreams of life is an infidel. They think that they are God’s soldiers who blow themselves up to defend the truth and that the blood of infidels washes away communal guilt, guaranteeing their entry into paradise. The odd thing is that since what they want is Heaven, why do they refuse to abandon the earth to us? Their entire project seems to be to make life submit to a culture of death, a culture that fears life. According to them, people who side with life are infidels and so are defenders of individual liberty and secularism.
    As a matter of fact, I find it strange - given that they declare the West to be infidel - that they head there and want to spoil its secular systems to make them reflect their own desires, by allowing women to wear a niqab face veil and a headscarf in France, for example, when its civil laws prohibit this. Their approach is eccentric; why do they seek out the West, which they think is infidel – ignoring the fact that its societies have welcomed Muslim migrant communities, permitted them to practise their rituals and ceremonies, and safeguarded Muslim places of worship? If the secularism of Western societies is deemed infidel, why do they go to the West? How amazing! It is amazing that – if they could – they would force the air itself and Nature to become subservient to Islam; they want to make life, its natural laws and ways of living, conform to Islam, arguing that the Islamic religion requires this. They do not represent Islam, though, because it, unlike them, recognises all heavenly religions, does not call other people infidels, and forbids killing anyone and blowing up innocent people. In the Islamic religion the only way one Muslim may be distinguished from another is by degree of piety, not because one is Arab or not.
    It is strange that we did not notice how dangerous they are for our societies here until the September 11th attack. It is odd that there are fanatical organisations in the Arab world demanding the elimination from our universities and schools of subjects like the arts, theatre, acting, and music. Who knows – perhaps they will seek to outlaw instruction in anything creative or brilliant in our poetic heritage or in the great culture of our Sufi mystics.
    They are racists – disfiguring, malicious, jealous, and sick heirs of racism and of the culture of genocide in this world, which seems to grow increasingly violent, bloody, and racist. Over this world blows a tsunami of hatred from fundamentalist zealots, not just tsunamis of rivers, seas, the sun, and the anger of Nature.
    These fundamentalists with their intense racism seem to return our world to the saints who emerged from a cave, the Sleepers of Ephesus. These fundamentalists are like dead men who want us to enter their cave and sleep there for centuries just as they did. Our world is witnessing an awakening of the dead who slumbered in the dirt for more than a thousand years. They awoke from the dead to erase the intellect from our history and life along with all humane enlightening ideas.
    Their victims on September 11th bear witness to what was, to say the least, criminal terrorism. For the sake of these victims we must reflect on this age, our world, and the peoples of our region too. Here extremists multiply like poisons and lethal viruses, and their victims – in Algeria, Yemen, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and many other countries – are multiplying in number as well. In Algeria they have slaughtered young schoolgirls merely because they wore gym clothes. In Somalia they threatened to kill anyone who watched the World Cup on the grounds that following the match was an act of infidelity and that infidels must be killed. They have killed thousands – if not more – of innocent people in Algeria and Iraq, and these victims have included an elite cultural, intellectual, and artistic group, university professors, physicians, psychologists, and athletes. They have targeted anyone who is active in aspects of modern civil society.
    During a recent visit to Algeria I was appalled when a young writer told me that his family, who live in a rural area, grease their necks with oil before going to sleep so they will feel less pain if Islamist fundamentalists come by night and slay them while they sleep – as has happened to many people.

    Never open the window

    What interests them is a constant flow of fatwas, each as heretical as the one before, targeting the intellect and women, who they often abuse. It is bizarre that groups of them in Somalia, for example, do not merely order that women wear the niqab face veil but even prescribe coarse cloth to make it more decent, and decree that in houses where women live the windows must never be opened. The frightening thing is that women internalise the image forced upon them by repression and their weak position. I noticed that Yemeni women who wore the niqab refused to vote in elections, because it would be indecent.
    What hurts me most is seeing women whipped and beaten. Some television channels showed footage of a girl in Sudan being whipped by three bearded men from extremist Islamist groups because she had worn trousers. She was screaming – her voice distorted by pain – as she fled like a terrified hen from one man to another, grasping their feet to beg them to stop flogging her. Instead, they took turns beating her mercilessly. Television channels broadcast a similar scene of another girl, a Pakistani, being whipped by a group of men, also for wearing trousers. When I saw such scenes I felt they were whipping me and had nightmares for days. I was filled with rage and wondered privately whether life retained any meaning for a person who has been deprived of freedom. What meaning does life have when such atrocious oppression is carried out by these madmen and lunatics, who annihilate life while clinging to its reins?
    Salafi thought destroys life and the language of development and civilisation. It abolishes the democratic social struggle and any dialogue or encounter between cultures – substituting malicious conduct, terrorism, demonisation of the Other as infidel – and grants licence to kill and shed the blood of innocent people. Most dangerous of all is its assumption that such behaviour is required to enter Paradise!
    A cultured person interested in learning, humankind, life, and beauty must confront tyrannical forces, and our countries with their numerous ethnic and religious groups must embrace a project of secularisation, separating religion from the state and accepting contemporary democratic forms, with their profound humanistic and civilisational meaning, as well as secularism that does not entail a lack of faith but instead deepens it through the acceptance of difference, of the Other, no matter who. Dialogue with the Other and recognition of him is an inseparable part of the identity of any culture for any people because – contrary to what they suspect – in the past, identity was not frozen. It is something that evolves continually, realising its existence in the present and the future so that its dynamism and effectiveness can be fully manifested.
    Anyone who cares about culture must defend liberal democracy, which – despite all the harm it has caused – remains the answer, a necessity, and what is required, because it implies civilised self-fulfillment, political diversity, living together, tolerance, human rights, respect for the Other, self-expression, criticism, and the peaceful transfer of power – in other words, everything that has drawn us out of barbarity and brought us closer to a good life, one we will not deserve unless we fashion it by writing and reading about it, as the writer Mario Vargas Llosa observed in his acceptance speech when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature this year. We must face up to deadly fanaticism, vile terrorism targeting the Other, and insanity, because by doing this we defend ourselves, humanity, our right to a beautiful life, and our right to transform dreams into reality.

    Alawiyya Sobh
    is a renowned Lebanese writer and journalist. Her novel Maryam of the Stories has been translated into numerous Western languages.

    Translated by William Hutchins
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2011

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